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May’s conservatism is blue not red: The battle over the new centre-ground is far from over

The Prime Minister's manifesto has taken ideas from Burke, Beveridge, and Blue Labour, but she can't escape the pull of neo-liberalism.

Is the Prime Minister best described as Red Theresa? Judging by May’s manifesto, she is more like a certain kind of blue. The blue of Burke, Beveridge, and Blue Labour.

In an age of anxiety and anger, ​May and her co-chief of staff Nick Timothy are trying to renew a more traditional conservatism that can combine greater economic justice with more social solidarity. 

The manifesto unveiled yesterday breaks not only with Thatcher’s settlement by stating that Conservatives "do not believe in untrammelled free markets. We reject the cult of selfish individualism". 

It also rejects Cameron’s version of progressive conservatism by dropping any talk of the Big Society and the emphasis on volunteering. Instead, May draws on Burkean thinking to argue that "true Conservatism means a commitment to country and community; a belief not just in society but in the good that government can do; a respect for the local and national institutions that bind us together".

Many will dismiss all this as nothing but warm words but it is so far the clearest expression of May’s guiding philosophy. 

Both before and after becoming Prime Minister, May has resisted labels such as being "post-liberal" or "red Tory". What is clear though is that she is the first party leader to acknowledge the limits of liberalism. More rights and individual entitlements will not provide a proper balance between personal freedom and social cohesion.

That is why she is calling for a greater recognition of mutual duties: "We know that we all have obligations to one another, because that is what community and nation demand […] society is a partnership between those who are living, those who have lived before us, and those who are yet to be born."

But it is not just Burke that shapes May’s conservatism. Beveridge’s commitment to tackling the five giant evils gets an update too. The manifesto promises to correct a dysfunctional economy, deliver Brexit, heal social divisions, care for the elderly and harness the power of technology. 

In each instance, the response offered by the Conservatives borrows both from the language and from many policy ideas developed by Blue Labour – the Labour group around Maurice Glasman and Jon Cruddas who argue for a common good politics based around work, family, decency, community and country.

Far from merely copying Ed Miliband’s policy platform, May’s team have embraced Blue Labour’s emphasis on ordinary working families. Part of the problem with Miliband was that he only ever talked about the rich and the poor, which ignored the vast majority of people. The Conservatives are pitching for what they call the mainstream – people with Blue Labour values who choose a fairly traditional family structure, value their settled ways of life and are generally sceptical about the pace of change.

While specific policies undoubtedly matter, the point about the manifesto is how the party sees the country. And the Conservatives are redefining the centre-ground away from the elite consensus of the past four decades towards the British mainstream. That means rejecting both the socialist left of Corbyn and the libertarian right of Farage in favour of the ‘common good’. That includes the ‘just about managing’ who struggle to make ends meet and the precious bonds uniting the peoples of the four nations.

However, May’s communitarian Conservatism looks set to run into contradictions. Ever-more global free trade is likely to hurt the very workers that May claims to defend when she speaks of a country that works for everyone, not just the privileged few. The focus of the Tories’ industrial strategy on greater specialisation in cutting-edge high-tech sectors offers nothing to more traditional sectors and local supply chains in support of people and communities they live in.

What is missing is a Conservative challenge to the power of centralised finance in the City of London combined with the Blue Labour idea of establishing a network of sectoral and regional banks that can channel capital into the productive activities of small- and medium-sized enterprise.

There is an even deeper problem with May’s mantra of creating a Great Meritocracy, which is narrowly focused on trying to boost social mobility. By definition, higher social mobility involves both winners and losers, and the point about the Brexit vote is that the losers from globalisation want a new settlement that works for everyone. 

State support for upward mobility fails to recognise that most people will never "win", or never succeed very far in pure liberal, free-market terms. Arguably, a true Conservatism requires higher economic success and more social esteem for non-academic qualifications and employment, for example BTECs. 

Britain needs a wide range of high-level technical colleges that provide proper vocational training, as Blue Labour has argued. It also requires new hybrid institutions for engineering, law and finance where young people not only acquire some academic knowledge but also learn a trade and its ethos.

And why not create Royal Colleges for professions that will matter more going forward, especially carers but also cleaners and caterers? Amid all the talk about automation, the Tories are silent on these and other jobs that involve human qualities of compassion, patience, humour and adaptability, which machines will never possess.

Thus May’s vision is steeped in the blue traditions of Burke, Beveridge, and Blue Labour, but her conservatism is beset by a fundamental contradiction between global free trade and national solidarity. The Tories are the party of capital and the moneyed interest, and they seem committed to a purely buccaneering approach to Europe, which drags the country back in a neo-liberal direction.

The failure to build a strong settlement at home will weaken Britain’s ability to shape a new global economy that benefits those who are experiencing economic and cultural insecurity.

Herein lies Labour’s chance. If the party recovers the Blue Labour values of work, family, community, country and support for the poor, then it can once again become the force of national renewal. 

May has parked the Tory tanks on Labour’s lawn, but the battle over the new centre-ground is far from over.

Adrian Pabst is the co-author (with John Milbank) of “The Politics of Virtue: Post-Liberalism and the Human Future” (Rowman & Littlefield).

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Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear